Fundamentals of Pranayama Updated though 8/6/2017 Pranayama is the means to control, regulate, direct, or expand vital life force energy (prana). The primary means to do this is through the manipulation and regulation of the breath. Breath and awareness together is the link that connects us to our prana.
The etymology of pranayama is the word “Prana” and the word “Yama.” Prana, again is vital life force energy and “Yama,” which we are familiar with from our Yamas series, means to restrict or control. Together, it is the its own definition: controlling of prana.
Pranayama practices can be done while practicing any asana (pose), but is most effective when the body is calm and steady and the spine is straight (i.e. - seated meditative posture). Through the manipulation of prana within us and around us, we can use these practices to prepare the mind for and to direct the mind into deeper states of meditation.
In the Yoga Sutra (2:49), Patanjali states that pranayama is the complete mastery over the roaming tendencies of the inhale and exhale. The movement of breath and prana are no longer uninhibited. An effect one finds after extended practice is that once prana is regulated, the roaming tendencies of the mind cease and one can attain higher states of awareness.
Pranayama is the final of the external four limbs, which all prepare the yogi for the 4 internal limbs of classical yoga (which will be covered in following series’). *Meditation notes will become available each week after practice
Week 1 - Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) One of the early practices of Pranayama for the aspirant is Nadi Shodhana, also known as alternate nostril breathing. By balancing the pranic flow in alternating nostrils, we create a balance in the body, energy, and mind. The restless fluctuations of the mind become more regulated and the mind becomes better suited to attain deeper states of consciousness.
To practice Nadi Shodhana, using the right hand (no matter which hand is dominate), use the thumb to block the right nostril and the ring and pinky fingers to block the left nostril (index and middle fingers folded into the palm). Inhale through the left nostril while blocking the right, then release the right nostril and block the left as you exhale out of the right nostril. Inhale then through the right nostril and then exhale out of the left nostril. This is one round. Repeat 10 times or for 5 minutes.
While beginning to practice Nadi Shodhana, the breath should be kept to an even ratio (Sama Vritti), meaning that the inhale and exhale are equal lengths. At more advanced stages of the practice, the breath may be retained and suspended. Also, the breath may become intentionally moderated to make the inhale shorter or longer than the exhale. It’s good to only progress under the guidance of a teacher, as a rushed or uninformed practice could create an accidental pranic imbalance. Meditation:
Sitting tall, practice Kapalabahti (the breath of fire) for 30-60 seconds to clear the nasal passages. Then, practice Nadi Shodhana as described above for 10 rounds.
Afterward, sit in stillness, watching the movements of the mind. Week 2 - Kumbhaka (pranic restraint)
The practice of Kumbhaka aims to retain, build, and manipulate prana within the system through the retention and suspension of the breath. More than just “holding your breath,” kumbhaka is only done with intention, awareness, and regulated practice. For instance, it’s best to be led by a teacher in the pranayama practices containing kumbhaka to ensure that you’re not creating imbalances in your system through the mismanagement of prana.
Some yogis and scholars argue that you’re not actually practicing pranayama until you’ve included kumbhaka (yama etymologically meaning “to restrain”, thus pranayama meaning to “restrain prana”). Whether this is true or not, the practices without kumbhaka are still vital toward building competency for stronger practices.
For those beginning kumbhaka, whether or not you’re able to hold the breath at length or not, start with short intentional holdings. For example, if you’re breathing evenly (inhale for an equal count, exhale for an equal count), allow your holds to be no more than half the count of the inhale. This will ensure that you’re keeping your system in balance. Any advancements from this practice should be done under the guidance of a competent and practiced teacher.
Once the aspirant is able to practice kumbhaka and thus balance their energy, their mind will become more stable and will be better suited to attain higher states of awareness.
Seated, establish Sama Vritti Pranayama (the even breath). After you're comfortable in your even breath, begin insert short 1-2 count pauses at the halfway points in the breath and at the beginning and end of the inhale and exhale.
Inhale half the capacity of the breath, pause for 2 counts
Inhale the remainder of the breath, pause for 2 counts
Exhale half the capacity of the breath, pause for 2 counts
Exhale the remainder of the breath, pause for 2 counts
...continue into the next round
In the moments of pause, allow the mind to go clear and become still. Over time, the stillness will become more solidified. After 3-5 minutes, return to a normal breath and focus on the inward stillness.
Week 3 - Ujjayi Pranayama (the victorious breath)
Ujjayi...the audible breath...the victorious breath. Often included in yoga asana classes, this seemingly simple pranayama practice has a deeper and more-profound meaning than just making your practice loud. One of the first questions I asked my teacher about this practice is why it’s called the “victorious breath.” Sure, the audible breathing can help us stay in the posture longer (victory over the pose!), it oxygenates the blood thereby increasing oxygen to the brain (victory over biology!), and it does help to soothe the nervous system (victory over the sympathetic stress response!). But what exactly are conquering here? In short, the roaming tendencies of the mind, which you’ll remember is a goal of all pranayama practices.
The ancient yogis knew that we don’t use our yoga practice to achieve victory over any outside circumstances, rather it helps us to achieve mastery over ourselves. It is to control the mind and its relationship to the rest of the world. So how does the audible breath do this? Our minds are attracted to movement and sound. By being aware of the movement of the body on the rhythm of the breath, as well as the movement of air in and out of the body, our minds are more successful at retaining focus. When you add the soothing Ujjayi sound to the breath, that awareness can increase and our distractions become limited and less potent.
For example, there are many uncomfortable yoga postures that you will come across in your practice. Should you practice one of those postures while practicing Ujjayi pranayama, you won’t be so distracted and deterred by your discomfort. When you are in a seated posture, working your way toward a meditative state, Ujjayi pranayama can again help the mind focus and become one-pointed.
To practice Ujjayi pranayama, bring your awareness to the breath. After a few rounds of awareness, gently constrict the glottis at the back of your throat in order to make a hissing or ocean sound as you breathe. For beginners of this practice, making the sound on inhale might feel straining and therefore the sound on inhale can be omitted until progress has been made. While making the Ujjayi sound, focus on the movement of breath within the body and feel your energy calming.
Ujjayi pranayama: bring your awareness to the breath. After a few rounds of awareness, gently constrict the glottis at the back of your throat in order to make a hissing or ocean sound as you breathe. For beginners of this practice, making the sound on inhale might feel straining and therefore the sound on inhale can be omitted until progress has been made. While making the Ujjayi sound, focus on the movement of breath within the body and feel your energy calming.
*Do you have a question for Jerry? Email him here